After reading Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones, one can only wonder, “What
if Hollywood read her book?” It feels as though she talks to each one of us directly. Each
chapter is filled with her personal stories that we can relate to. Stories filled with adjectives that
describe what she was experiencing at that moment in time. Stories we can connect with.
How many times have we read a book and thought, this would make a fantastic movie, then it
becomes a movie and we are more than slightly disappointed? Honestly, we think this book is
amazing, and our opinion of the book is validated because Hollywood made it into a movie. But
what happens when Hollywood gets a hold of the book?
In the chapter titled, “Baking a Cake,” Goldberg compares baking and writing this way: “When
you bake a cake you have ingredients.” She goes on to say that writing is like, “You have all the
ingredients, the details of your life, but just to list them is not enough.” “If you use details, you
become better skilled at conveying your ecstasy or sorrow.” Once you have all of the ingredients
mixed together you need heat. Goldberg says of heat, “All that heat goes into the making of that
cake. The heat is not distracted, thinking, “Oh, I wanted it to be a chocolate cake, not a pound
cake.”” “You don’t think. You accept what is and put down its truth.” In other words heat is
what you apply to the ingredients to turn them into the finished product.
One of the longer chapters in “Writing Down the Bones” is titled, “Listening,” one word that
means so much. The advice she gives, others have handed down to her. For example: “If you
want to learn about a tree, go to the tree.” Basho, Seventeenth Century Haiku Master.
There is also this quote from, Dogen-Zen Master, “If you walk in the mist you get wet.”
Obvious? Not always. How many times are we rushed because we are running late? The cat
got out, dang it I forgot something…we’re so scrambled everywhere at once…where are my
shoes? A chaotic mess for sure. We are missing out on the adjectives, the details. My goodness,
our society is running toward a monsoon and we think, what? It’s raining? Did we even notice?
We are wet?
Goldberg says that one needs to, “Listen with your whole body, not only with your ears, but with
your hands, your face, and the back of your neck.” When we read a book we keep reading if the
book holds our interest, every word, every detail. In other words, Goldberg says, “Take in the
sound of the season, the sound of the color coming in through the windows.”
Let’s take young school children as an example. The way they experience things has details.
For instance when they touch paint for the first time. It starts off with a tentative touch. It feels
slimy, cool, and gooey. They start rubbing into their little chubby hands, through their fingers.
The next thing you know the paint is up to their elbows, their nose, hair and clothes. Children
experience new things with a gusto, an excitement! This is what Goldberg wants one to
experience when writing, the excitement that comes when listening with all of one’s senses.
Perhaps that is what is missing when a book becomes a movie. Remember reading the Harry
Potter series? If you were a fan, you wanted those books to become movies! Most of us who
got hooked on the series read every book more than once, heck, we’re still reading them over and
over again! Then the day was here when the movie finally came out. There was a line a mile
long filled with excited people like me. Parents were re-reading the first book aloud to their
children as they anticipated the doors opening. Once the doors did open, everyone rushed to
their favorite seats, while mom’s got in line to pick out her groups’ favorite movie treats. The
excitement was palpable. Everyone was talking to everyone. We were all new friends with this
in common. The movie started. We gripped our seats, the arm rests, each other, and wait! What
about…? And…? Aw… sometimes it’s best not to compare the books with the movies. How did
my family react? Well, the movie premiered on Friday. I had actually purchased the tickets
ahead of time for both Friday and the following Sunday just in case we compared the movie too
closely to the books, which we did. We wanted to watch a second time, with more objective
eyes. We realized there was no way filmmakers could all of the sets exactly the same way they
were described in the book. There was also no way they could add all of the content of the book
because the book was so chock full of conversations, adventures, and details, and of course there
were the details and did I mention the details? In the book those details were descriptive words.
Adjectives, nouns, verbs! When one reads the book, one feels, one sees, one hears. It’s all there
in print! Every glorious word to take one to a school he or she believes is real, a school one
wishes to attend. To paraphrase a favorite meme, “Be yourself, always be yourself. Unless you
can attend Hogwarts, then be a witch or a wizard!”
Oops. Went off on a tangent. But that is what a good writer does to us. He or she makes us
believe. In the chapter, “Man Eats Car,” Goldberg says, “You will take leaps naturally if you
follow your thoughts, because your mind spontaneously takes great leaps.” She also says,
“There is no separation between writing, life, and the mind.” “We are connected” This is
profound because we are all connected. Everyone shares common experiences such as love, joy,
hopes, sorrows, anger, frustrations, we could go on. Regardless of one’s race, nationality, gender, or age. This is why books so often remain popular through time.
Goldberg says we should write, “Not by asking why? Not delicately picking among candies (or
spark plugs), but voraciously letting our minds eat up everything and spewing it out on paper
with great energy.” When she told a group of third graders about a story of a man eating a car, one student didn’t ask why, but rather he burst into laughter. The absurdity of it all! The child didn’t stop to analyze the situation, he just saw that it was funny.
How different would the Harry Potter series have been if J.K. Rowling had not allowed her
imagination to run amok? As Goldberg suggested Rowling’s mind took great leaps and instead
of stopping them, she brought her readers along for the incredible ride. Readers got to attend
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Everyone learned how to cast spells and make
potions. We got to fly on broomsticks and watch our favorite teams play Quidditch! Even a
traditional game of chess is barbaric. The pieces come to life and attack each other. Descriptive
words are wonderful. They fill in the pictures in one’s mind.
In conclusion and stealing from an old saying, “Getting what one wants isn’t always what it’s
cracked up to be.” Hoping your favorite book to become a movie? Just remember to keep in
mind, the movies have limitations where your mind doesn’t. Get in your favorite cozy place, get
comfortable, relax and enjoy your favorite book. But if your book becomes a movie, treat it as
the separate entity that it is.
Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc. 1986 print